Do you have a customer who refuses to pay you for the repairs you made to her car? Or maybe a former landlord is trying to keep your security deposit or won't let you get your belongings that you left behind when your lease expired. These are the kinds of disputes that are resolved by the Alabama small claims courts.
Once you've decided that filing a lawsuit is the only way you're going to get paid or get your property, you have to know the mechanics of what to do and how to do it. In general, you have to know exactly who you're suing, have the right paperwork, and file the suit in the right court.
Where to File
You file a small claims case with the clerk of the appropriate district court. In Alabama, there are 67 district courts: One district court for each county of the state. Generally, you should file your suit in the district for the county where:
- The defendant (the person you're suing) lives, if the defendant is a person
- The defendant has an office or conducts business, if the defendant is a business, like a partnership, sole proprietorship or corporation
- Your claim "arose," such as where the car accident happened
If there's a written contract involved in your case, like a lease or a sales agreement, check to see if it says exactly where any lawsuit has to be filed.
If you don't file the lawsuit in the right district court, the defendant can ask the court to move the case to the proper court, or even ask that the case be "dismissed," or thrown out of court. This can slow things down for you. So, if you're unsure about where to file your suit, contact the clerk's office for the district court for your area for some help.
Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial
Lawsuits begin when the plaintiff, the person who's suing, files a "complaint." In the Alabama small claims courts, the complaint is called the "Statement of Claim." Basically, this form tells the court, and the defendant, why you're filing the lawsuit and what you want from the defendant - money or certain personal property. When filling out the Statement of Claim form, you need to give information about case in a clear and simple way. Print neatly and just give the facts about your claim. Specifically, you'll need to give:
- Your name, address and a telephone number where you can be contacted during the day
- The defendant's name and address
- The amount of money you want the defendant to pay or description of the property that you want the defendant to turn over to you
- Reasons why the defendant owes you money, or why the property rightfully belongs to you
You also need to fill out the names and addresses portion of a form called "Notice of Trial." The court clerk will fill in the date and time of the trial in the case.
It's very important that you have the proper name and address of the party you're suing. If you're suing:
- A business that's not a corporation, like a sole proprietorship, you should contact the county or city office or agency that issues various business licenses, or check with the local Better Business Bureau (BBB) to get the legal names and addresses for the business and its owner
- A corporation, you can get its exact name and address from Alabama's Secretary of State. You'll also find the name of the company's "registered agent," the person who accepts important documents for the corporation
- A partnership, you need the name of the partnership as well as the individual partners. Again, check the local business license office and BBB for this information; the Secretary of State will have this information for certain types of partnerships, so check there, too
Use the right form! In Alabama, the small claims courts use separate forms for suits involving claims for money and suits to get or recover specific personal property. The court clerk can give you the forms you need.
You have to pay a filing fee when you file your Statement of Claim with the district court clerk. In Alabama, the fees vary from court to court, and they can change at any time. So, be certain to check with the district court clerk in your area for the current fee amount.
Generally, if you win your case, the small claims court will order the defendant to pay your filing fee (called "court costs"). This will be in addition to any other money or "damages" the court awards you on your claim.
Service of Process
"Service of process" is when one party gives the other party notice that he's being sued. Generally, this is done by making sure that the defendant gets a copy of the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial that you filed. You're responsible for making sure that the defendant is served. When you file your Statement of Claim, the clerk will give you detailed instructions on how to do this. Generally, you need to have a sheriff or process server deliver or "serve" a copy of the Statement of Claim to the defendant. You have to pay a fee for this. Ask the clerk or sheriff for the current fee amount. Alternatively, you can pay the clerk to mail the papers by certified mail.
Make sure you have the right name and address! If the defendant isn't served properly your case can't go forward, and it may be dismissed, or "thrown out" of court, and you'll then have to start all over again. If you're suing a corporation, you need to serve its "registered agent." She's the person named by the corporation who's responsible for accepting important documents and papers on behalf of or for the corporation. If you're suing a sole proprietorship, you need to serve the business's owner or its registered agent, if it has one. If you're suing a partnership, you need to serve its general or managing partner.
Once you've filed suit, the defendant can do any number of things, such as :
- Settle the claim, that is, simply agree with your claim and either pay what he owes or turn over the property you're demanding. If you agree to a settlement before trial, it needs to be in writing and you need to contact the court immediately
- Answer the suit. This is where the defendant gives the court a written statement setting out in clear and simple language why you shouldn't win the case. An Answer form will be sent to the defendant along with your Statement of Claim, and he must file it within 14 days after he receives it
- Default. If the defendant doesn't file an Answer within 14 days of receiving it, or if he doesn't show up for trial, he "defaults." This means that you win automatically win, so long as he was properly served with your Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial and you can show the judge that your claim against defendant was valid
- Counterclaim, or file a claim against you. The defendant has to file it with the clerk and make sure that you get a copy of it within 14 days of the trial date. If you don't get it in time or need more time to prepare for it, you can ask the court for more time, which is called a continuance
- Ask for a continuance, which postponing the trial to another day. The request has to be writing and there must be a good reason for it, such as illness
Questions for Your Attorney
- I filed a small claims suit against a dog owner, who lives on the next street over from me, because her dog bit me. She says that she never received "notice," but I know the complaint was mailed to the right address. What can I do now?
- How much will you charge me to fill out the Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial and represent me in small claims court?
- The defendant I sued in small claims court said that I filed suit in the wrong district and the case was moved to another court. Do I have to file another Statement of Claim and Notice of Trial and pay another filing fee?